Another day in Flanders. It’s now obvious to all that the German High Command has gone round headquarters with a set of tools, removed all the kitchen sinks, and had them sent to Roulers and Langemarck as emergency ammunition. Not least because of the character of the men who are now going into action. Let’s have that map of the salient again, shall we?
(Remember: Tube map, not Ordnance Survey map.)
With the French counter-attack brushed aside, the Germans are now free to march on Langemarck. The exact events of the attack are a Matter of Some Debate. There’s a widespread story that the attack was led by German student volunteers, who advanced on British positions in Langemarck village (or possibly Bixschoote) while singing either their old college songs or Deutschland uber alles. Or possibly both. Or possibly it happened later, in November. Another common part of the story is that the students wore their academic hats into battle, rather than the regulation Pickelhaube. It’s a widely-told story, perhaps most famously in 1925 by Hitler. He’s in this whole cake and arse party as well, incidentally, but he did lie about being at Langemarck. Today, he and his mates are advancing cautiously up the Menin Road.
What is not in dispute is that the volunteers (some students, some not) were ordered to advance against strongly-defended British positions all along the line between Langemarck and Bixschoote. The defenders have had (relative to what they had at Mons) deep trenches prepared by the Engineers, with barbed-wire belts in places, and plenty of artillery behind. The inexperienced, poorly-officered Germans launch a frontal attack. They’re aiming to bite out the base of the Ypres Salient from the north, in conjunction with the operations in the south at Messines. This would also cut the BEF off from the Franco-Belgian line to the north.
The Germans advance as their regular soldiers initially did at Mons. Tightly packed, shoulder to shoulder, over open ground, not attempting to take cover, with minimal artillery and mortar support. The defenders of Langemarck open fire at 200 yards and the Germans fall like corn stalks being scythed down. Those who survive are being brutally shelled by British guns, some of them firing over open sights. For me, Langemarck is yet another case of there being no need to exaggerate anything. The Kindermord is a legend; but once the propaganda is stripped away, what’s left is quite enough to convey the full horror of the day’s events.
The British line in front of Armentieres is becoming more and more raggedy and uneven. The situation here has degenerated somewhat into a hell of local sniping, attacks and counter-attacks. It’s worth remembering that it’s impossible to dig trenches in this area due to the high water table. Even small shell-holes quickly fill with water. This makes positions of any kind very hard to defend, and several locations are changing hands almost daily.
At La Bassee, the Germans force a minor retirement from Givenchy village. This prompts a major offensive all along the line, which is not entirely unexpected. Fallback positions have again been prepared, and during the night the BEF retires to them. When they arrive, they find that due to a general shortage of Engineers, Pioneers, shovels, barbed wire, and most anything else useful, the “fallback positions” are mostly just lines marked in the mud. Many men spend the night digging with their bare hands. Every inch of mud dug out represents a considerably better chance of survival when the next attack comes.
The situation on the Yser is becoming untenable, despite the best efforts of its defenders, even though Dixmude somehow remains in Franco-Belgian hands. The bridgehead at Tervaete is expanding. The Germans simply have too many men. Drastic action is soon going to be called for here.
Actions in Progress
The Daily Telegraph is republishing its archives from the war day-by-day. In today’s paper: there are wide-scale arrests of anyone with German or Austro-Hungarian citizenship, referred to on page 4 as “enemy aliens”. I wonder if they asked Doctor Who to help them? Page 5 is devoted to an advert that appears to suggest tying a small cat to one’s chest (and then sprinkling it with whisky) to defend against a variety of ailments, and pages 7 and 8 are still trumpeting on about the Trafalgar Day celebrations (no, it isn’t a Thing any more).